sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Backup quarterback in the NFL is a strange gig. I don’t mean the young first-rounders whose teams are invested in their futures. I’m talking about the other kinds of backups: the former starters still hoping to contribute and the small-school guys just waiting for their shot. Most carry their clipboards and collect their paychecks without meaningful action — and without much chance of glory.
But in Week 8, those guys were called into action, and they had a field day. Four of them — two former starters and two QBs making their first starts — led their teams to wins. Let’s celebrate the accomplishments of these backups and look at just what their wins might mean in the overall picture of the NFL season.
We’ll start with the biggest surprise of the weekend: the New York Jets taking down the Cincinnati Bengals. After a rough game last week in relief of the injured Zach Wilson, Mike White threw for 405 (!) yards. How?
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): White threw to running back Mike Carter all day long. His average depth of target on the day was 3.7, so 66 percent of the yardage came after the catch. I think we need to celebrate the entire Jets offense today.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): And along those lines, this makes me think about the theory that relatively unknown QBs might be more set up for success in their first starts just because of the dearth of tape on them.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Jets pretty much took the Patriots’ playbook and executed it. While the passes were short, plays developed quickly, and everything was on time for maximum yards after catch. The Jets finally made offense look easy. This was the first 400-yard Jets passing day since 2000 and the first 400-yard, three-TD first start in NFL history.
neil: So does having Wilson tempt you to expand the playbook beyond that — leading mostly to disaster in the early going this season? Is this a paradox of QB talent?
sara.ziegler: Yeah, that’s the question, I think. Why weren’t they always doing this?
Salfino: White has elite arm talent, too, as a former high school pitcher. He can fire it. The interceptions were both ricochets. I think the team needs to coach this way going forward. I don’t like what coach Robert Saleh said after the game:
I think he should have said, “Mike played great, but we coached better and played better around him, so when Zach returns, he will have the benefit of those things. We’re all learning.” Or something like that.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think teams will smash every easy button — screens, bootlegs, play-action, middle-of-the-field passes — anything to help out a backup QB. That coupled with a lack of tape, as Neil alluded to, leads to a state where the offense can continue to rely on those things for a time without the defense responding too much. I mean, no one is going to respect White’s deep throws next week.
Salfino: Are you saying the Bengals were respecting White deep? No.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m saying that they weren’t geared up for 3.7 air yards per pass attempt.
neil: And they certainly weren’t respecting White as a receiver:
joshua.hermsmeyer: Also, the Bengals were coming off a huge win, and if you want to put stock in such things, this was a classic low-energy letdown game.
Salfino: When you watch the passes, White was very impressive. It was not a bunch of check-downs. It was modern, efficient passing offense. And he made at least a half-dozen impressive throws:
joshua.hermsmeyer: Pro Football Focus has White with one (1) big-time throw (BTT), for a BTT percentage of 2.
Salfino: Only Josh could trash White today. Love it.
joshua.hermsmeyer: White had a fine game, but Mike, what is your expectation here? Are you really caping up for him as some under-appreciated talent?
Salfino: Who knows? The NFL is so weird. No one knows anything with QBs. Could one of these guys, mainly White or Cooper Rush, be Kurt Warner or Tony Romo? Go back to even Johnny Unitas, a sandlot QB who the Steelers cut. Even Kirk Cousins ended up being much better than the man who was drafted second overall in the same draft by the same team.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t argue with that — no one knows anything about QBs. But since you’re a Jets fan, I am deeply discounting the possibility.
Salfino: The fates of QBs lie largely not in themselves but in the stars, to turn a phrase.
neil: To bring it back to Wilson, his NextGen Stats completion percentage vs. expected is -6.9 this season. White was +8.9 percent against Cincy on Sunday. The Mike White Game has to reflect some on Wilson.
Salfino: Wilson has thrown poorly, no doubt. Shockingly bad at times.
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sara.ziegler: I do think there’s something to some opposing teams not respecting an emergency backup at all and then looking pretty flat against them. Take, for example, Sunday’s other first-time starter: Cooper Rush of the Dallas Cowboys, called into duty when Dak Prescott was ruled out with a strained right calf. Rush threw for 325 yards and led a two-minute, 75-yard touchdown drive to beat the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t know how to quantify “trying hard against an unproven QB,” but it did not seem like the Vikings would score high in that metric.
Salfino: The Cowboys are easier to understand because they are a complete offense with great players, so it’s not shocking that someone would step in and play well. To play that well is somewhat surprising, but they only scored 20 points.
Interestingly, the Cowboys once had both White and Rush on their roster and chose Rush over White. They got Dak cheap.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Rush is a great example of the difference in passer rating and QBR. Against the Vikings, his Total QBR was 45.5 and his passer rating was 92.2. I actually side more with passer rating here. Rush pushed the ball downfield and played well in the clutch. Although with passer rating inflation, maybe those are equivalent these days. Who knows.
neil: It’s tempting to say the Cowboys have a better supporting cast, making it easier for an untested backup to step in and perform with Dallas than with, say, the Jets. But then again, we have a sample last year of what happened to non-Dak Cowboy QBs after he got hurt, and it wasn’t pretty.
Salfino: That’s very fair, Neil.
sara.ziegler: I was impressed with Rush’s game-winning drive, finishing with this nice TD pass to Amari Cooper:
neil: He Moss’d him.
sara.ziegler: It also was apparently the first time in the history of the league that a touchdown pass from a QB with the same first name as the last name of the receiver!
Salfino: This was fun!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Cooper Rush is an elite name, and that was an elite grab by Amari Cooper.
neil: Back in my day, it was big when Tom Brady threw TDs to Kyle Brady. We’ve reached a whole new level now.
Salfino: I can see why you keep a guy named Cooper Rush over a guy named Mike White, seriously. Mike White needs a nickname.
neil: He does need something to sound a little less like a Madden Create-a-Player.
joshua.hermsmeyer: “Mike White” is still a better name than “Siemian.”
sara.ziegler: What a great segue.
The two winning backups who used to be starters have more complicated narratives. Trevor Siemian came in Sunday after what seemed to be a serious knee injury for Jameis Winston. Siemian has 25 starts to his name, and he was solid for the New Orleans as they beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the Saints also have Taysom Hill on his way back from a concussion. What’s the answer there? Is Siemian the better option for this team?
Salfino: Someone on Twitter speculated that the Saints are going to sign Philip Rivers. I’m here for that!
No, Siemian is not a better option than Hill. I think Sean Payton is going to make a bunch of phone calls today. But for me, the win against Brady was more about Payton than Siemian. He’s such a great coach. I figured they had no chance with a third-string QB. And despite all the big plays, the defense did well — it was mostly man defense, and there is such high variance when you play that way. But what else can you do? They at least kept the score low for most of the game. Siemian was the most game-managed of all the out-of-nowhere QBs yesterday. To perfection.
neil: Hill has better career passing numbers than Siemian, for what that’s worth. Hard to know how much of that was because Hill has been used, uh, inventively most of his career so far.
Salfino: Hill completed 72 percent of his passes as a starter last year, though Josh probably has something to say about that.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do, but I’m pretty sure Payton will go with Hill if he’s healthy. He signed him to a big contract for a reason, and against the better judgment of most QB experts that have watched Hill throw. I think Payton will again die on Taysom Hill.
neil: I see what you did there.
sara.ziegler: It’s too good to pass up.
Rivers has 700 mouths to feed.
sara.ziegler: But would washed-up Rivers really be better than either Hill or Siemian? I find that hard to believe.
Salfino: Last time we saw Rivers, against the Bills in the playoffs, he was fantastic. I have no idea. Probably not! But what is more entertaining?
neil: IDK if Rivers is washed up. He’s not even 40 yet!
neil: And statistically speaking, Rivers was actually pretty good last year.
joshua.hermsmeyer: You’ve got Cam Newton out there as well, but he’s probably too much like Hill stylistically to be much of an upgrade considering the learning curve in getting up to speed with an offense. The best would be playoff Drew Brees, IMO.
sara.ziegler: I wonder how much money it would take to get Brees back. He seems pretty happy where he is right now, LOL.
Salfino: I do think Brees is totally washed.
sara.ziegler: And finally, Geno Smith continued his comeback on Sunday for the Seattle Seahawks. Smith was an efficient 20-for-24 (for 195 yards) against the Jaguars. This is a bad Jacksonville squad, obviously, but the Seahawks couldn’t afford to drop a game like this as they wait for Russell Wilson to return from his hand injury.
Salfino: The third backup breakout with Jets ties!
He actually had the best passer rating out of the group, FWIW. His 14 straight completions were the most this year for any QB. It was also his first win in a start since … 2016. Barack Obama was president.
neil: He was a lot better than in his previous three games, but I fear it is too little, too late for Seattle. When does Russ come back again?
joshua.hermsmeyer: As a person with a not insubstantial interest in Tyler Lockett, the two DK Metcalf TDs were very tilting after Lockett’s score was called down at the 1-yard line. But the connection between Geno and Lockett seems real. Smith targeted him 13 times.
Salfino: Do good games against an Urban Meyer-coached team even count though? I use the word “coached” loosely.
neil: Speaking of DK (and guys getting Moss’d) …
joshua.hermsmeyer: Love the goal post jump-hug.
sara.ziegler: Wilson is supposedly back after Seattle’s bye week next week, and the Seahawks are only 3-5. We give them a 23 percent chance to make the playoffs. They’re not out of this yet!
Salfino: Let’s see them against a professionally coached team. I’m serious.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The NFC East and North will have to continue to be garbage for the Hawks to have a shot.
sara.ziegler: The NFC North will have no problems there, Josh.
Salfino: Meyer kicked the extra point to stay down three scores and then kicked onside and had it returned for a TD. He’s like the Jay Cutler of head coaches.
neil: “The Jay Cutler of head coaches,” LOL.
Really, if they wanted that, they could have just hired Cutler as coach. He doesn’t have anything better to do.
Salfino: No difference! I don’t feel like Urban is even watching the game.
sara.ziegler: We should talk quickly about the other big news today: Derrick Henry might be done for the season with the foot injury he suffered Sunday against the Colts. This is terrible news, and it seems pretty clearly Josh’s fault for writing about him last week.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I accept this blame.
sara.ziegler: The Titans are apparently signing Adrian Peterson — who played with the Lions last year but hadn’t found a home this season — to try to replace Henry, though I have my doubts about how much he can help.
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Salfino: I think I’m on team Rex Ryan here in saying that the Titans are no longer a contender. It’s not so much what Henry does as how the entire offense is funneled through him. If Julio Jones comes back healthy (a big if) and A.J. Brown stays healthy, you can see them still being dangerous. I do respect Ryan Tannehill as at least a good player. But 40 percent of their plays have now been excised. It’s going to be very tough.
neil: Henry almost had 1,000 yards by midseason after running for 2,000-plus in a 16-game season last year. It’s a real shame we couldn’t see what kind of numbers he would put up in 17 games.
Salfino: But when you include the playoffs, he just had so many hard miles. It seemed inevitable that he would break down unless he was Superman. And we all thought maybe he was.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think this is a great example of appreciating the player but over-weighting the contributions of one guy to the team. I think Henry is the best back in football, but I don’t think this substantially affects the Titans’ odds of making the tournament. And once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen.
neil: Before they signed Peterson, there was as little tape on Henry’s backups as there is tape on anybody’s backups in the league, maybe some of these obscure stand-in QBs included. I guess we’ll get to see how they do plugging Peterson in at age 36.
sara.ziegler: Yet another chance to test our favorite theory.
joshua.hermsmeyer: 150-yard two-TD game incoming from Peterson.
sara.ziegler: Can’t wait!
neil: In keeping with the Cooper Rush Theory of having an inappropriately named backup step in and play well, I think the Titans’ should have signed former Patriots RB Patrick PASS.
And a fullback. Sold.
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